I remember clearly the moment when I first recognized the wit of Alex Ross Perry.
I was 23 years old, working as a clerk on the third floor of the legendary Kim’s Video on St. Marks Place in Manhattan. Alex, then 21, worked on the second floor. He was at the counter, renting movies or maybe just chatting with some of my co-workers. I said that I didn’t like a particular movie. I remember his instantaneous reply: “What do you like, Julia? Dressing in black and looking like a witch?”
My jaw dropped, and at least one of my male co-workers laughed out loud. I was making an extremely meager living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and I was merely trying to look thin! He was being mean at my expense, yet I had to admit it: he was funny.
It wasn’t just the comment itself. Alex’s timing and cadence were ferocious and impeccable. About six years later, in 2011, when I heard he’d made an independent movie called The Color Wheel that was about to play as part of a film festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I knew I had to reach out to him. I was floored after attending a press screening of the dark comedy, which happened to be Alex’s second feature film. The word that came to my mind upon seeing The Color Wheel was “powerful.” It was inspiring to see someone I knew channel his energy into a focused project that had all the hallmarks of his personality and that also eloquently voiced his frustrations. Soon, I became an ardent champion of the stylish, highly quotable, black-and-white film that he directed, co-wrote and in which he co-starred. (Alex also edited the film and served as a producer.)
“It’s very humiliating to have to put yourself out there in the way that you write a script and then your friends are reading it because they’re going to help you make a movie,” Alex, then 26, told me when I interviewed him about The Color Wheel soon after the press screening. “I feel like a lot of people refuse to try,” he continued. “I had these questions for myself. And what I wanted to explore is, ‘Why was it so important to me to try?’ I’m not saying I’m going to make a movie that’s going to succeed,” he clarified, “but I just wanted to try.” But while he seemed modest, he also displayed a willingness to be vulnerable by conceiving and acting in a film that is brutally honest, revealing and personal. He possessed an invigorating panache. “Vincent Gallo and Jerry Lewis wrote and directed films that they’re also in most or all of,” he said. “That’s just perverse. Those guys convinced me that it’s not only okay to do that, but it’s great.”
But just when Alex had the perfect opportunity to become a pompous egotist, a strange thing happened. He made Listen Up Philip (2014), a movie about a notable young novelist, which, in turn, established Alex as an acclaimed filmmaker whose most outstanding quality is his hyper-literate and wickedly funny voice. I laughed out loud when I saw the trailer, in which Jason Schwartzman, playing the title character, Philip Lewis Friedman, had lines that I could imagine Alex saying in real life. “Let’s keep this jacket on me and take the photograph sooner rather than later,” the impossibly fast-talking, flamboyantly negative, eternally depressive Philip snaps at a stylist, during a promotional shoot for his new novel. (In that scene, the photographer asks Philip to pretend to read his own book. Philip refuses.) The script is self-aware, self-mocking and self-reflexive. “I see now via making this film what would happen to somebody if they followed [their] bad impulses to the very bitter end,” Alex told one reporter upon the film’s release.
The now-33-year-old filmmaker has already directed five feature films. Alex wrote the story and co-wrote the script for Disney’s upcoming live-action fantasy, Christopher Robin, inspired by A.A. Milne’s treasured Winnie-the-Pooh books, which comes out in August. He also co-wrote the just-released Nostalgia, starring Ellen Burstyn. Alex agreed to talk with me on the phone recently, soon after the opening of his new film, Golden Exits — an intimate ensemble drama featuring Schwartzman, Adam Horovitz, Chloë Sevigny, Mary-Louise Parker and Emily Browning. Alex’s loose trilogy of New York movies — Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth (2015) and Golden Exits – all premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. They deal with what he calls a major “obsession of the city and the culture” — the idea of “people of a certain age becoming either successful enough to feel like they’re earning their place in New York or having some sort of occupying job that doesn’t necessarily make them a more special person, which is sort of what everybody in New York wants for themselves.”
As we spoke, I sensed that Alex was actively trying to understand where I was coming from on the other end of the call. I searched for words frequently throughout our conversation, but he didn’t interrupt me once. Maybe he shares a philosophy with a sensitive but wounded Listen Up Philip character who says, “I speak from experience that it is horrible to be treated in a way that only points out how meaningless you are.” During our conversation, he offered insight into his idiosyncratic, colorful and bittersweet films.
“Prior to shooting Listen Up Philip, I knew I saw a movie about this guy angrily stampeding down the street in New York. That was really the first thing I needed. The Golden Exits equivalent is two people sitting in an office in a wide shot on opposite corners of each other, with this vast space of crap in the middle of them. That’s obviously a shot we use a lot — it’s the image of an emotional arc of the movie…”
ASK AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE
“I still feel that making a movie is humiliating. That’s not different now. Even Golden Exits is a movie that mostly exists because of favors, which are always humiliating to ask for, and they’re especially humiliating to ask for when you’re making your fifth movie. I didn’t think we would still be having producers ask their friends if we could shoot in their house for, like, no money. I assumed by now I would be past begging for that kind of favor, but I was apparently wrong. Now, I just acknowledge that that’s a fact of life, and I don’t mind, and I move on.”
DIFFERENT FOLKS, DIFFERENT STROKES
“Mary-Louise Parker is a Tony-winning theater actress in her fifties. Jason Schwartzman is a friend at this point. They have styles as different as night and day. For Listen Up Philip, Jason and I spent three weeks reading the script together. He wanted me to read all of Philip’s lines, and he read everybody else’s lines. Whereas with Mary-Louise Parker, once I started a sentence — ‘Or it could be something like this…’ – she was like, ‘I know you’re not about to give me a line reading.’
The challenge of Golden Exits is we’re making a movie with Mary-Louise for five days that she wraps, and then a week later, we’re making a movie with Jason for five days. So, learning how to be the director of both of those actors on a movie that then — when you cut from one scene to another — has to feel like the same movie is a really slippery challenge to try to wrap my head around.”
A CRASH COURSE IN FILMMAKING
“I really learned from Jason [Schwartzman] and Lizzie [Moss] on Listen Up Philip what directing was. Through working with them, I learned to be quiet and listen, and answer questions, and ask questions. And every movie is now just a movie for that. That’s what the job is — more than being a tyrant or a demanding person with an exacting vision.”
THE VIP EXPERIENCE
“We’ve all been invited to some event where you’re sort of amazed that you made the cut to be there. That was a feeling I started to have many times. For me, it was very small-scale stuff. I’m talking about my inclusion in certain film festivals and my ability to share a festival dinner table with filmmakers who I loved tremendously. I’m not saying that I was the only person to do it or that my experience was particularly enlightening. I’m just saying it was crazy for me, when The Color Wheel was out, to be at some of the dinner tables I was at, and a lot of the movie came from turning that feeling into something narrative. Listen Up Philip is about the feeling of, ‘This is crazy. Why am I here?’ — which is the sort of thing that can occur any place, any time — and also ‘How do I not act like a jackass about what’s happening to me?'”
“I was sort of working through a theory at the time of The Color Wheel. I felt that if even a very, very, very cheap independent movie ends with a licensed pop song, it becomes something that feels bigger than it is. That song [over the credits] is a 60s girl-group soul song. In Listen Up Philip, we do the same thing at the end, but blow it up 10 times bigger by using a Supremes song. It’s similar to the idea of the titles and the font and the [Philip] Roth influence. I got to do a rough draft of what I was thinking about with The Color Wheel, and then I got to do it again and do it right with Listen Up Philip, and then move away from that stuff.”
“My experience answering for myself, and answering for Impolex (2009) and The Color Wheel, was one of an incredulous, happy-to-be-there, wide-eyed loser. By any traditional measure of what independent movies were ‘supposed to do,’ both of those movies kind of missed the mark. So, any time I was in a position to be talking about that, I was just amazed, and my perspective was that of a humble, self-depreciating outsider. Then around the time of making Listen Up Philip, with those kinds of actors and those kinds of resources and being at Sundance, my wife was like, ‘You have to stop being self-depreciating. It no longer sounds charming. Now it’s ridiculous.'”
“I would love to have Vincent Gallo in a movie. It’s about who you have access to. People seem very preoccupied with talking about what you don’t have in your films. It’s a very savvy and bold thing to yell at people about. I’ve never done a movie with children. I’ve never done a coming-of-age movie about a 14-year-old. I’ve never done a movie about old people. I’ve never done a movie about working-class people. I can see a world where I’m writing and making movies that bears very, very, very little resemblance to what I’ve done before in terms of the actors and the types of characters. The more I work, the more I feel like I’ve learned enough to tackle any one of those with some convincing measure of believability, as opposed to just tackling those from a point of ignorant curiosity.”
“What does my family think about my movies? It’s hard to say. My dad lives in Philadelphia, but he grew up in New York, so his mom and his sisters and his cousins come to all of my New York screenings. They just can’t believe that they show up and I’m introducing a movie for a thousand people and having my picture taken. They’re completely unable to discern any true feelings, because it’s just so mind-blowing to them to see this level of importance placed upon me. Queen of Earth was shot at my dad’s cousin’s lake house. So, their thoughts on the movie are like, ‘Wow, you really made Bob and Mitchell’s house look really good.'”
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA
“To me, there is no New York story without thinking about professional ambition. That is New York to me — people needing to be more successful and interesting and powerful and public than anyone around them. You say that Lily Rabe’s character [a personal assistant] in Golden Exits kind of jumps out as someone you relate to. I hear that a lot. It’s relatable to people at 25 and 30 and 35, which is to say, ‘I didn’t have a master plan, but I had some ideas, and now I’m just kind of confused because it feels like the last three years have just kind of slipped away.’
Oddly, from people I talk to, who are comfortable admitting what they feel, I think she’s probably been cited as the most relatable character 50 percent of the time, which, considering that she’s one of seven characters, is kind of amazing. I’m very, very happy and intrigued that what she’s going through in the movie is something that other people feel. Maybe it’s just the audience I’m talking to.
I was trying to give voice to a lot of people’s personal anxieties and fears about themselves and how much they kind of wish they were doing compared to how much they are doing. It’s not a bad thing — everyone has ambitions that outstrip what they’re capable of. You can be successful and be doing your thing and still be in a state of personal malaise and confusion about it. Someone says to me, ‘Oh, you’re 33, this is your fifth movie.’ And I have the same answer that she does, which is, ‘Yeah, but I thought I’d be somewhere else by now.'”
Julia Yepes is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.